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New soccer league encourages neighbors to have fun, build community

The GR Champions League has started its first year and the response from people who want to play on neighborhood teams has been more than organizers had even hoped for.
Deportivo Westside before their game against Southeast United

Deportivo Westside before their game against Southeast United /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

Underwriting support from:

GR Champions League Teams

  • Deportivo Westside

    • Team Captain: Ben Oliver

    • Home Field: Harrison Park

  • Downtown Heartsiders

    • Team Captain: Bill Kirk

    • Home Field: Heartside Park

  • Eastown United

    • Team Captain: Shannon Cunningham

    • Home Field: Wilcox Park

  • FC Southtown

    • Team Captain: Ken Miguel-Cipriano

    • Home Field: Burton Elementary

  • Heritage Hill Lyons

    • Team Captain: Max Dillivan

    • Home Field: GRCC

  • Southeast United

    • Team Captain: Lee Muller

    • Home Field: Congress Elementary
Southeast United and Deportivo Westside

Southeast United and Deportivo Westside /Christina Kalouche

Sergio Cira Reyes of Deportivo Westside versus Southeast United

Sergio Cira Reyes of Deportivo Westside versus Southeast United /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

Grand Rapids has a new local community soccer league: the GR Champions League. It was started "to celebrate and connect the unique citizens and neighborhoods of Grand Rapids through the power of the beautiful game." Teams from different neighborhoods play each other once a week throughout the summer and early fall at area soccer fields.

"Lee Mueller, formerly with the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, approached Tim Kelly and I with the idea almost two years ago. After lots of talk and desire to get something going that connected great people in Grand Rapids to the wonderful neighborhoods and each other through soccer, we finally got organized enough this year to populate some teams, pick some parks to play in, and get things going," says Bill Kirk, Mobility Manager at Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.. 

"Beyond the three of us, however, there has been a small, dedicated group of folks that started meeting this Spring to do some planning, and they became the team captains and organizers. It really has been a collective effort, which is a great reflection of what the GR Champs League is all about."

Kirk says the response has been fantastic. Some teams have grown so well they are already talking about how to add teams next year. 

"There has always been an undercurrent of support for soccer in GR, and now with awesome things happening like GRFC, space has been created for a neighborhood league like ours to thrive. After our first night of games, all of the captains were emailing each other like giddy children, recapping how everything went, talking friendly smack and just generally celebrating how cool it was that a bunch of proud Grand Rapidians had started something special."

So far, the six neighborhood teams include Deportivo Westside playing at Harrison Park Elementary, the Downtown Heartsiders playing at Heartside Park, Eastown United playing at Wilcox Park, FC Southtown playing at Burton Elementary, the Heritage Hill Lyons playing at GRCC and Southeast United playing at Congress School.

"It was inspired by the Detroit City Futbol League," says Kirk, "where the number one league rule is 'Don’t be a real ass. This is a recreational experience meant for enjoyment.' So that pretty much sums up the spirit and feel of the league."

Once Kirk, Mueller and Kelly had talked to a few friends to gauge interest, it became clear that there were a lot of people in Grand Rapids that were looking for something different than the hyper-competitive, potentially injury-inducing leagues that exist all over the area.

"That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with those leagues or serious play, and those leagues are great for soccer in the area," he says. "But there definitely was something missing for people that just want to play some laid back soccer." 

From the beginning,  they embraced the idea that the league would not be overly focused on rules or too worried about things like field size or regulations. Instead, they wanted to create something that celebrated the unique neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, helped people make new friends and fostered a community-building spirit.

"One of the things we encourage teams to do is go support a local bar in the area after games to get to know each other and the neighborhoods better. It’s stuff like that sums up what we’re all about," says Kirk.

Each player is also asked to donate $10 at the beginning of the season. Each neighborhood team then takes the donations and together picks a local nonprofit where they will donate the money. For example, Deportivo Westside donate their money to the West Grand Neighborhood Association.

Sergio Cira Reyes says what he enjoys about playing in the new league is the chance to get together with all of his community partners.

"We have people here from Challenge Scholars, the Literacy Center of West Michigan, D.A. Blodgett St. John's, Kent School Services Network, Kids Food Basket, Bridge Street House of Prayer, Partners for a Racism-Free Community, Union High School, Keystone Community Church and The Other Way," he says.

For information about playing on a team, email Bill Kirk.

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